Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case”?

October 24, 2007

File photo of patient Terry Schiavo in a Florida hospital, 2001Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case“? Eluana Englaro has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for the past 15 years and her father is trying to get legal permission to remove her feeding tube. Italy’s highest appeals court recently sent the case back to a lower court in Milan that had refused to let him do so. The local media have already dubbed Eluana “Italy’s Terry Schiavo” and the retrial (when it happens) looks set to spark off another major bioethics debate there.

Beppino Englaro has been caring for his daughter at home and says it’s time to free her from “the inhumane and degrading condition in which she is forced to exist”. The appeals court (Court of Cassation) said the lower court must determine whether her PVS is irreversible and whether she expressed the wish not to be kept alive if in a PVS. Her father said she had expressed that wish, but apparently has no living will or other tangible evidence to back that up.

Eluana’s case lacks the husband-vs-parents element that propelled the Schiavo case into the U.S. national headlines in 2005. But thorny cases of bioethics get into the national spotlight in Italy. A Roman judge is still investigating a doctor who last year removed the respirator of paralysed muscular dystrophy patient Piergiorgio Welby, 60, who had described his life as “torture” and asked for the right to die. Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

One Italian angle to the story is the traditional influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which just last month repeated its stand that it is morally wrong to remove artificial nutrition and hydration tubes from PVS patients, even if they will never regain consciousness. The Vatican daily Osservatore Romano has already denounced the Court of Cassation’s decision in the Eluana case as unacceptable because it would “lead legislators fatally towards euthanasia”.

There’s not much written in English about this case yet, but — a sign of the times — Eluana already has a sub-entry (under “euthanasia”) in the Italian Wikipedia.

2 comments

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This world is demented! Years ago, before heroic measures to support a body not breathing on its own , this woman would have expired naturally! HOW can the pope and his minions demand that a family continue nursing this vegetative human after fifteen years of misery . My brother -in-law just died this week after a week of respiratory support never brought him out of a comatose state that ensued after a cardiac arrest…and a catscan determined …twice…that he was entirely brain dead and not breathing on his own for an entire day. Surely this Italian case can be determined on the merits of these points.Why are they feeding and oxygenating a carcass for fifteen years. I’d have pulled that feeding tube a long time ago and said it happened accidentally.This is an absolutely inhumane situation for the survivors

Yvonne Le Fort
Ontario ,Canada

Posted by Yvonne | Report as abusive

I don’t know if the writer meant to juxtapose their sentences as they did, but removing a respirator from a patient who is able to request it be removed would not be assisted suicide under any U.S. law.

Federal court decisions like Cruzan in the U.S. have made clear that even feeding tubes are medical treatment that can be refused by the patient or removed on the patient’s request, or removed under the conditions of an advanced directive if the patient is unable to communicate.

State laws in the U.S., however, differ on whether oral statements are sufficient to remove medical treatment (that’s why Schiavo was litigated)

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive